(by Simone Perotti)

Kostas Koutsourelis is a handsome man, with a good build, wearing a white shirt and beige trousers. He doesn’t look like a poet, not as we normally think of them, but more like a self-assured financial director of some company or other listed on the stock exchange. And I like him right away. I generally do not like people who resemble themselves too much. He approaches our yacht cautiously, he is obviously not a seafarer. As he steps over the gangway, he asks me “Is it safe?”. I reassure him it is.

We ask him if he would like a glass of cold water, as is customary in the Mediterranean, because of the heat, as a welcoming gesture. It’s a habit that we’ve picked up on the Mediterranea. Kostas Koutsourelis seems to be rather shy. He seats himself in the cockpit looking rather embarrassed. He crosses his legs, rests an elbow on a thigh, tries to look self-assured, but like all shy people ends up looking quite the reverse. I don’t really know why the first thing we start talking about is sensitivity. “People tend to confuse sensitivity with weakness …”. I would like to start talking about the men in Greece, ask him if they are they in crisis, if they know where they are going. But he takes me off the track by asking me about my books, I tell him about my television programme. He is the first person to do so. A person who asks questions is always more interesting than someone who wants to make a statement at all costs. After a while I remember that I am supposed to be the interviewer. I ask him he feels the responsibility of acting as a guide for society, like the poets of the past. He smiles. “I don’t know if people really follow what poets say. Certainly, the point is communications. We are responsible for communicating with the public. But do we have the interior condition, are we in the mood to communicate with people? That’s a very good question. Today there is a big gap between us and the people. If we want to make an impact we have to jump that wall. Greek writers are not very straightforward, they do not go right to the point, they do not deal with arguments directly related to people”.

What a good start. I would have thought that he was a completely different type of intellectual. “It is the authors who invent the myth of the writer. We are responsible, above all today, for being less exceptional. If you go to a library you will realise that nobody is interested in the things we write about. I said this, in a paper, in an intervention, and the cultural environment was not too happy about it. For intellectuals, it is much easier to be surrounded by aura of mystery. Do what you want, but don’t open that door”.

Koutsourelis has been on the web since 1989, he is on facebook, and communicates with his readers “even with those who today don’t read. We are far too isolated from the public, I want to talk even with those who don’t read what I write. People are afraid, and quite rightly, that a poet is a snob, that not many understand him. And indeed, very few people understand poets. There are very few poets today that many people read, and in the intellectual community they are not very welcome. I don’t know if I have explained myself …”

Koutsourelis smiles. The rosè wine of Macedonia is starting to put him at ease. “Most poets today write about things that are in no way related to the crisis and today’s problems. I can’t do that”. This is a contemporary intellectual. “Surreal, metaphysical themes are very interesting, but they are not the only themes. Michelangelo, that I translated into Greek, wrote of the wars of the Pope, of Giovanni della Rovere. They were the themes of that time. In some way, sooner or later, Greek authors will have to answer for this”.

Kostas Koutsourelisha has published two collections of poems dedicated to Greece in times of recession. “They are two completely separate collections of poems,” he admits with an air of resignation.

But do the people who are protesting, those of Sintagma Square, know about these collections, can something be done to ensure that they read these poems? “I don’t think so. They are far too focused on what they are doing. But those who write about the people of their times are always the ones who are remembered. The others end up in mausoleums”. Kostas Koutsourelis is ambitious, as he should be.

I tell him that the intellectuals in Italy seem to be light years away from reality, and that they do not seem to feel the need to write anything in any way related to the life of people, to the important themes of today, nor do they feel that they should show the way, do their job in other words. I ask him what happens in Greece “I would say that it is more or less the same. Writers consider themselves to be the voice of God, they have lost touch with reality, they have regressed with respect to the times of the dictatorship and the Junta. I believe in participation, not in the supremacy of art and the intellect. We can play a small role. And it is right that we interpret it, but what we need is the transversal participation of everyone”.

But do newspapers publish articles by artists? “If they did, what difference would there be between advertising and poetry? It is a question of priorities”. I don’t really understand this, but I don’t ask him to explain it to me, because Kostas Koutsourelis has opened up now, he has relaxed and he talks to me of the separation between the different fields of art, that do not communicate in Greece, each is shut firmly in its own corner, and this restricts the public, each has its own, without a lateral osmosis, thus reducing the impact of art on the public. “It is all fragmented. No one knows what his neighbour is doing, we live in parallel universes. We need to ask ourselves very sincerely what we really need, what we should really be doing. If art is a peculiar world, we can go ahead as we are.

If we want to reconnect to the role that art has always played in the past, we have to change our attitude, change style and arguments. Perhaps we should be shouting more, and trying to understand what the meaning of the words we use means to us. Do we really believe in the words we use? Do they have a different meaning for us?” I think that we have to change the relationship with ourselves, to change the relationship we have with the words we use. We need new eyes.

I tell him about our journey, an expedition which is looking for elements for a possible Mediterranean citizenship, and if we are crazy to think that this is possible. Do the Greek feel this citizenship close to them? Does this sentiment exist? “It exists. But what you need to ask is if it is perceived as important. Why do so many countries, everywhere, want to separate, why is there this great desire for isolation and independence, rather than union? Is what you looking for Utopia? Who knows, it is something I need to ask myself. But the current desire for union in the Mediterranean is not enough. What we need to do is bring together our identities. Can we truly talk of a Mediterranean identity, Mediterranean literature? I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic. Perhaps we should start by talking of our differences. Perhaps only then can be talk of our identity”.

Koutsourelis is smart, he doesn’t waste words. I would like to be able to speak Greek, because I feel he would say so much more, spend more words and give me more perceptive impressions. I feel the distress of the language barrier, which sooner or later is felt by a traveller who is authentically looking for something precious. “Why is Europe in such bad shape? Perhaps for the same reason,” he adds. “Europe is a state of countries, but it is not a homeland”. When a poet finds the sentence, he makes the point. I add that perhaps the Mediterranean is in quite the opposite condition. It is not a Country but a homeland. What a wretched paradox. I ask him if we are truly idealists, and he answers me with a diplomatic smile: “It’s food for thought. Utopia, even when it is such, gives you in any case food for thought”. And to think that I hate the concept of utopia, because it is impossible to achieve …

Kostas Koutsourelis has obviously decided that our interview is about to finish. “What we really need is a point of balance. In Greece we have three fundamental orientations: the Mediterranean, the European and the orthodox, which looks to the East. It is the legacy of the tie that here no one wants to admit, but which exists: the tie with Constantinople, with the Ottoman world and culture, with the Eastern Roman Empire. We need a point of balance between these vocations. We need to look at reality square on: the diversity of the Mediterranean is a strong point, but also a weakness, the origin of conflicts”.

How can we change this paradox, where our strength is also our tragic weakness? “We must re-invent life in the Mediterranean, make it become an authentic model. We are only followers, today, we do what they tell us. We should recover an original, radically local path, that is also able to deal with contemporaneity. We have to think and create a new Mediterranean Model. Otherwise we will be followers forever, which is of course convenient, but brings no glory”.

Can someone guide this process? Is there anyone, in Greece, who can address us towards this immense goal? “I’m afraid not. One would need more ambition, which is the attitude you need to leave the worn and travelled path for the new. But there is no one with these qualities …”.